Harbaugh, Schwartz battle for attention

BY Jason Whitlock • October 17, 2011

This was Smug and Smugger, the postgame clash between Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh.

What looked like an outburst of emotion between two super-competitive football coaches in the aftermath of a close game was really an explosion of smugness between a former small-college academic All-American and former Michigan quarterback.

The high-profile 49ers-Lions contest Sunday — a battle between surprising fast-starters — was the equivalent of pitting Kim Kardashian and Holly Madison in a televised “hot body” contest. You can never satisfy a diva’s need for attention. A post-show catfight was virtually inevitable.

Given an opportunity to extend their three hours in the spotlight, Harbaugh and Schwartz did all they could to refocus attention on Harbaugh and Schwartz.

Smug and Smugger. They’re the T.O. and Ochocinco of coaching.

If you think you’re impressed by San Fran’s and Detroit’s matching 5-1 starts — the 49ers upset the previously unbeaten Lions 25-19 on Sunday — you should seek access to the innermost thoughts of the yet-to-be-celebrated geniuses responsible for them.

Make no mistake, Harbaugh intended to mock Schwartz with an exaggerated, over-the-top postgame celebration/handshake. Harbaugh skipped across the field, lifted his shirt and sweatshirt, chest-bumped with a lineman, and when he finally reached Schwartz, Harbaugh gave the Lions coach a dismissive handshake, a pound in the back and appeared to bark something equally condescending.

Schwartz swallowed the bait and responded to the unflattering imitation. He chased after Harbaugh and nearly ignited a brawl.

“I went to congratulate coach Harbaugh and got shoved out of the way,” Schwartz whined in his postgame news conference. “I didn’t expect an obscenity at that point. Obviously, when you win a game like that, you are excited, but there is a protocol that goes with this league.”

Schwartz has no idea that everyone in the league — including the 49ers coach — has taken notice of his protocol-infringing sideline emotion and overall cockiness. In the first quarter of Sunday's game, Schwartz was shown on TV mocking Harbaugh for not knowing the replay challenge rules.

Honestly, identifying the good guy and/or bad guy in this little tiff is an exercise in pointlessness. Schwartz and Harbaugh are neither good nor bad. They’re smug. They’re attention whores. They’re mirror images.

None of that is written to diminish their plentiful talents as football coaches. It’s written to reflect their similarities and the fact they both desperately want public credit for what they’ve accomplished this season.

As Harbaugh skipped across the field, I saw a man who had the contented look of a high school class president candidate who just revealed his main opponent wouldn’t host any more Friday-night, backyard keg parties because his parents’ home had gone into foreclosure.

The Michigan grad (Harbaugh) outsmarted the Georgetown economics major (Schwartz).

Sunday, Harbaugh changed the NFL narrative. The 49ers, not the Lions, are the feel-good story about a young coach making an impact, about an organization digging out from irrelevance. Harbaugh couldn’t contain his joy, need for attention and smugness, because his 49ers exposed Detroit despite playing their absolute worst game of the season.

Harbaugh spent the entire day irate that he was going to lose to Schwartz because the 49ers couldn’t get out of their own way.

San Fran committed 15 penalties. It felt like the crowd noise caused the Niners to false start at least once on every possession. Harbaugh drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for challenging an unchallengeable play. Quarterback Alex Smith was his normal, mediocre self. He fumbled on San Fran’s first possession. He threw a seemingly backbreaking interception. He panicked under pressure. He rarely threw downfield, averaging 3.9 yards per attempt.

I’ve said for the past month, the Lions aren’t as good as their record or the hype. You can run on the Lions. Without ever fully committing to the run, the 49ers chewed up 203 yards on the ground.

Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh isn’t as effective in Year 2 as I anticipated. Something is missing with Suh. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s a lack of gap discipline. Whatever, Suh isn’t the only problem. Quarterback Matt Stafford is a streaky passer. He’s a high-throwing Donovan McNabb. The Lions can be had, and it doesn’t necessarily take a great effort.

The 49ers traveled to Ford Field and beat Detroit with their "D" game.

Now do you understand why Harbaugh unleashed his inner Eddie Haskell? Harbaugh revealed a secret he knew the football media wouldn’t uncover until way too late (in his mind).

The Lions are frauds. And maybe so is their hot-dogging, protocol-breaking coach. And maybe, just maybe, the Lions are frauds because of their hot-dogging, protocol-breaking coach. In Harbaugh’s mind, the Lions, unlike the 49ers, have the personnel to be legit.

Harbaugh danced across the field wanting to throw all of this — and more — in Schwartz’s face. I don’t blame Schwartz for reacting and even overreacting. There was no reason for Schwartz to pretend he didn’t comprehend Harbaugh’s taunts. Schwartz is smart. He’s Harbaugh’s intellectual equal.

The cliche “it takes one to know one” was invented to describe Harbaugh and Schwartz. Whatever Harbaugh thinks of Schwartz, the same is true of Harbaugh.

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